Whale rescue on Australia’s humpback highway

Getting caught in fishing gear can be a death sentence for whales

It is like a needle in a haystack: how does a whale find itself entangled in a vast expanse of ocean?

So how do you free the 20-ton giant from a maze of constraints when he’s panicked, sometimes angry, often hurt, and always determined to escape you?

This is a conundrum that marine rescuers like Wayne Phillips must solve on an increasingly regular basis.

Each year, some 40,000 humpback whales leave the freezing waters of Antarctica during the world’s longest mammal migration.

They make their way along Australia’s east and west coasts to the tropics before returning, calves in tow, a couple of months later.

For most Australians, the so-called “humpback highway” from May to November is a fun and exciting sight.

But for Mr. Phillips and his team at Queensland’s SeaWorld, that brings an undercurrent of anxiety.

The need for help is constant and growing. “It seems like we’re always on the lookout for whales,” she says.

How saves work

The teams rely heavily on public reports, which use them to guess the movement and trajectory of a troubled whale. If it is found, a complex and exhausting task begins.

First, rescuers must essentially immobilize the huge mammal before it nervously strays away. Ironically, these are methods originally used to hunt whales, says Susan Crocetti, a rescue specialist with New South Wales Parks and Wildlife.

Teams approach in a dinghy before attaching large floats to whatever the whale is entangled, to slow the animal down and tire it.

They then carefully trace which lines to cut and when, before catching them with a hook knife attached to a long pole.

Much has been said about the impact of shark nets on whales, but rescuers say the real killer is “ghost gear”: commercial fishing nets, lines and even anchors that are lost or abandoned at sea.

“Sometimes the weaves can be hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of meters of rope wrapped in complicated layers around the whale,” says Crocetti.

“And you have to cut it in the right order.”

If you don’t, you risk freeing the whale enough to allow it to dive or swim away – a potential disaster.

“Even the smallest amount of tools will slowly cut the animal,” says Mr. Phillips. “So if we don’t remove everything … it’s a slow death and it’s not a nice death.”

Deadly work

The stakes are also very high for rescuers.

At least two people have died in the past two decades – most recently Canadian veteran Joe Howlett, who was killed moments after successfully rescuing a whale in 2017.

Trapped whales are often badly injured and “incredibly stressed,” says Crocetti. “With just one rustle of a 20-30 ton animal’s tail – if you’re in the wrong place – it can be catastrophic.”

Then there are the other challenges: fatigue, rough sea, bad light and, at times, even sharks. It is not a job for the faint of heart or the inexperienced.

The training includes swimming tests, protective gear and practice of cutting lines from a boat in the water. SeaWorld tries a 600kg fiberglass dummy whale nicknamed Moby.

“But it’s still dangerous to anyone, no matter how experienced you are,” says Mr. Phillips.

Wayne Phillips

Mr. Phillips has been saving whales for nearly 30 years

Sometimes the activity spans several days. The Crocetti team once followed a whale for months, thousands of kilometers and two states.

Often they lost track of the whale and were hampered by the terrible weather, but eventually managed to cut the last tangled line. Crocetti describes it as a highlight of his career.

“Anyone who untangles a whale would say it’s the best thing they’ve ever done,” he says. “[But] it was really sweet. “

Growing problem

Humpback whales were hunted almost to extinction last century. In Australia, the number off the east coast had dropped to “just over 100” in 1963, according to previous government estimates.

After the whaling ban, however, the local population has returned in the tens of thousands, experts say.

But this also means that more and more humpback whales are trapped in the approximately 640,000 tons of ghost gear that are dumped into the world’s oceans every year.

And most rescue attempts don’t end happily.

Last year, Mr. Phillips’ team received reports of 30 whales caught in phantom gear. They could only spot and help two.

A crew attempts to free a whale

A crew attempts to free a whale

In one case, he remembers spending two days trying to remove 70kg of chain from a whale in distress. But without a technique to remove the chain, the team ultimately couldn’t do much.

“We did our best,” says Phillips. “[But] it’s disheartening when we don’t get the job done. “

It’s moments like those that may make the battle against commercial fishing waste seem impossible, but Mr. Phillips can’t imagine doing any other work.

“It’s the roller coaster,” he says. “Sometimes you are excited, you think you are making progress and then the next minute you may have lost the whale.

“But it’s pretty hilarious once the job is done … to see them swim away, free of any gear, is pretty overwhelming.”

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